Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Paradise lost as the Great Marcellus Gas Rush hits home

Organic farmer Stephen Cleghorn reports
Sunday, October 10, 2010
On our 50-acre certified organic farm, located in a small unincorporated area of Henderson Township in Jefferson County, an area that has been called Paradise for more than a century, there is a high point to which we take the dogs. There we like just to be quiet before the beauty we see all around us. Rolling fields of crops, alternating green and brown. Our neighbor's cows, gorgeous Jerseys with their big soulful eyes, framed against their emerald pasture. Our own dairy goats lazing away a summer's afternoon on the pasture down below us.
And sometimes we go up there at night to admire God's creation as it envelops us. From that hilltop it is easy to recall the words of the poet-farmer Wendell Berry:
I am wholly willing to be here
between the bright silent thousands of stars
and the life of the grass pouring out of the ground.
The hill has grown to me like a foot.
Until I lift the earth I cannot move.
Five years ago we had a dream that we could take these 50 acres and make them our small gift to our neighbors and our world by producing healthy organic vegetables and fresh goat milk products. We wanted to do so in a manner that in a small way helps to heal our environment, our atmospheric commons that has become stressed by an over-reliance on fossil fuel energy. We joined a growing movement in agriculture to be small and local on purpose, for our health, for that of our neighbors and even for our planet.

But in truth, aside from all our ideas about what we set out to do, that lovely hill played a big part in our deciding to move to this piece of land rather than another. It would be our little portion of Paradise.
Now that hill and this farm into which my wife and I have poured our lives' savings face a mortal threat. We are learning fast the second-class status of being a land owner -- a "surface rights" owner -- without mineral rights. The Great Marcellus Gas Rush has come to our county and may one day make camp on our farm.
We do not want diesel-spewing compressor trucks lined up all in a row to force water, sand and secret chemicals into the ground 7,000 feet below us in order to release methane gas from shale. Nor do we want a pond full of toxic waste water coming up from a well to threaten our crops or harm our dear goats.
Fortunes are being made below our feet. A neighboring family that bought our gas rights for $150 in 1995 just realized an $80,000 bonus for changing their lease to facilitate a mile-square Marcellus Shale "gas production unit," as it is called. The lease has been sold to a company capable of putting a 5-to-10 acre industrial site on our beloved hill.
This family, our neighbors, already has realized a 53,000-percent return on their investment, but they see greater wealth to come, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars monthly, when the royalties start rolling. We see nothing but the threat to our health and the health of our gentle trusting goats and the loss of our property value.
And we are told there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.
We do not accept that yet. We will fight, you can be sure. But we do not want it to be that way. We want the peace and tranquility of that hill.
In Tioga County, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle after they drank gas-drilling fluids that overflowed from a pond of drilling waste. It tasted like salty water to them, which they like. The Agriculture Department required that the young calves be held out of the food chain for two years for fear that the toxins in the drilling fluids -- including the heavy metal strontium -- would get deposited in the calves' bones and find their way into humans who ate their meat. What about our milk?
On our hill, late at night, it is not the stars but these dark thoughts we must now consider. In that sense our Paradise is already lost to us, whatever may happen next.

Stephen Cleghorn and his wife, Lucinda, run Paradise Gardens and Farm in Reynoldsville (

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